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My Jane Austen Summer
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Category Archives: My Jane Austen
by Rebecca Reynolds
In her book The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Janet Malcolm talks about reading a biography of Plath by Anne Stevenson. Malcolm found that the quotations from Plath’s poetry in the book spoke more strongly than the biographical part: ‘the voices began to take over the book and to speak to the reader over the biographer’s head. They whispered “Listen to me, not to her. I am authentic.”’
I Skyped from my office. “Happy birthday!” I said. Clearly her house was full of revelers and I struggled to hide my embarrassment. “I’m sorry to interrupt your party.”
“Nonsense, Jane Austen said, “You’ve saved me the trouble of inviting you.”
I fell into the awkward lull.
“Don’t fret, you’re not the only guest to arrive via Skype,” she said. “We just hung up with Mark Twain.”
“But he’s dead.” Her guests looked oddly familiar. “Is that Charlotte Bronte?” I asked.
Jane turned to look. “Yes,” she said.
I met Jane Austen through my parents. She occupied a top bookshelf between Aristotle and Balzac, wearing the same tan tweedy jacket all the Great Books wore. From my teenager perspective, she seemed as accessible as a marble goddess in a museum. Nonetheless, one acutely boring day while wondering WILL I EVER ESCAPE THIS SMALL TOWN, I found myself precariously bereft: between books with nothing to read, and decades before the day of instant downloads. Thus, the annoying choice: either not read, or resort to my parents’ Great Books collection. I pulled Sense & Sensibility off the shelf and spent several days out of town—in Jane Austen’s world. I could have mustered greater enthusiasm if she’d included a Heathcliff in her pages, but she was a friend of my parents, after all.
The Jane Austen Society of North Texas celebrated Jane Austen’s 235th birthday and I sat next to Jane at the luncheon. Everyone thought she was a regular Janeite in period dress but I saw her struggle with the escalator, noted how she walked behind me into the dining room on account of unmarried ladies go last, and grimaced when I mentioned I’d written a book called My Jane Austen Summer. Nobody in JASNA grimaces at Jane Austen, Summer or not.
She didn’t talk much, but she wrote on ivory squares, and, being close, I could look sideways without moving my head and secretly read her notes. She wrote:
Imagine the outrage of 700 Janeites (myself included), packing our bonnets to attend the Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, upon reading the shocking Muggle headlines suggesting Jane Austen may not have written her prose. Where is Dumbledore when you need him?
At the meeting in Portland, Oregon, papers will be presented, a monstrous deal of quizzing will take place, and many will dance in Regency attire. But Janeites are not happy, emails have been flying, and a heads-up urged us to be prepared to discuss “the issue” in hallways and breakout sessions. Even my non-Janeite friends are forwarding articles to me. All because an Oxford professor made provocative comments as she introduced her three-year project: digitization of 1,000 handwritten pages of Jane Austen’s letters and manuscripts. The timing of the project’s debut could not have been more accurately targeted to nail the attention of her audience. On the eve of the convergence of North America’s most dedicated Austen enthusiasts, while thousands more Janeites watched from home, and Janeites everywhere turned their exclusive focus to all things Austen, Professor Sutherland announced that Jane Austen couldn’t spell, demonstrated no grasp of punctuation, and had a terrible accent.
This time, last year, I went to England to meet Jane Austen. I was nervous, and with good reason since I’d taken the liberty of writing about our relationship, even though we’d never met. I ran the terrible risk of discovering I’d based my book on a deep misunderstanding . Five years of my life could go down the drain.
Not to mention what Agent would say.